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The Ace Combat series has always been the best at what it does on the PS2. And what it does, generation after generation, is present the most intense, streamlined dogfight action you can experience from the comfort of your couch. To this end, Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War fulfills all expectations. Unfortunately, the series has never been up to the task of delivering a story befitting the adventure, and this game takes the trend to an all time low. That, along with a lack of any genuine innovation since the last game other than graphical performance, keep AC5 from reaching new heights.
The gameplay in AC5 is neither faithful simulation nor purely arcade in style. It is something in between, semi-sim, so to speak. What this means is it is just realistic enough to give players all of the excitement of manning a billion dollar war machine, while at the same time being loose enough that they don't get mired in the minutia of operating every aspect of the aircraft.
Players will have the opportunity to pilot fifty authentic, licensed planes. Each aircraft has subtle differences in behavior according to style and performance, and players will have to decide which of them not only suits his or her needs for each mission, but which will best accommodate each member of the squadron. Things such as mission objectives, weapon payload, and weather conditions all play a part in those choices. The best missions are those that have a healthy mix of land and air targets, which allows you to play to your own strengths and emphasizes diversity among your squadron.
The controls stick to the basics: pitch, yaw, roll, et cetera. There are no easy, hot button dogfight tricks, however. The game contains an in-depth tutorial that breaks down a variety of tactical aerial maneuvers players will need to know in order to engage and evade the enemy effectively, and with style. Performing according to your own skills and abilities is much more satisfying than holding down a couple of buttons to pull off a generic barrel roll. The targeting system is touchy, but reliable. The HUD is complex and comprehensive. Things like speed and heading are pretty obvious on the display. Other items require a little study, such as the pitch and distance scales. When all is said and done, the controls are easy to pick up, but require practice to master, and these planes are just plain fun to fly.
The heart of AC5 is the dogfight. Defending an aircraft carrier or destroying enemy strongholds may make for a good reason to go into battle, but once you are there, it is the excitement of the chase that consumes you. Few games are able to generate the rush of aerial combat like the AC series. With the controls stripped down to the basics, as well as your worries (your enemies, friendly fire, crashing into the sea), you can concentrate on the thrills, and not the details. You don't have to worry about G-forces, or gravity at all, really (flying upside down for ten, fifteen minutes, an hour, whatever, doesn't seem to affect you in any way). Nor do you have to worry a bout fuel. And stalling your plane is usually only an inconvenience, not a life threatening situation. For some, this will be a fault. But for those of us who want a little Top Gun in our lives without having to qualify for a pilot's license, this is the way to go.
The AI is just good enough to make things fun in any setting other than the most difficult. But crank the game over to Hard¯ and you can pretty much write off breathing until you turn off your PS2. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for your wingmen, which are the most annoying and useless group of cannon fodder I have encountered since the original Starfox on the Super Nintendo. This is the first of my complaints.
My chief complaint is that the story is terrible. It's embarrassing, really, enough so that it actually interferes with your enjoyment of the game. Basically, the allies that served you in the last game have become your enemy in that wacky playing field we call global politics. Of course, all of the countries are harmless inventions. This particular one is Yukta-whatever-stan. Of course, you are the rookie that is destined to become the squadron leader. This is standard stuff. The dialogue, however, is unnatural and unconvincing. We know, for example, that the former Captain was in love with a rebel woman fifteen years ago, because every time that plot point becomes necessary the characters say something to the effect of I know that the Captain was in love with a Yukta-blah-ditty-blah woman fifteen years ago, but¦¯ or hey, remember how the Captain was in love with a woman from Yukta-yadda-yadda fifteen years ago?¯ And this isn't the worst of it. We really have to get to a point where video game scriptwriters are rising to the level of natural human speech. There is no reason why we can't take every step to ensure that these characters are convincing, not only in their physical qualities, but their human qualities as well.
And I haven't even mentioned the abhorrent stereotypes that exist in this game, such as the shy girl who everyone thinks is unsuited to fly a plane into battle. And sure enough, she is just another one of those eye candy, tee-hee¯ sort of women that exist in most of the video games, cartoons, anime, or manga we encounter. I hardly think that this is the kind of person that the high brass would entrust with untold human lives, not to mention billions of dollars of military equipment. It's actually offensive in this context.
It doesn't stop there. The characters are even so annoying as to actually interject during the actual game. There you are, in the heat of the action, and you have one of your idiot wingmen commenting on how hard dogfighting is. He even gives you a play by play of what is going on. Then they expect you to answer their questions by removing your thumb from the controlling joystick to press left or right, yes or no, on the D-pad. One such oh-so-important question from one of my wingmen: Hey, did you see that?¯ Press yes or no. Well, no, I didn't. I was too busy engaging the enemy in a breathless display of aerial acrobatics while dodging a lock-on from the bogey on my tail to see whatever it is you think is so important. And I hardly have the leeway to press your silly button at the moment, thanks. It may not be lethal to my enjoyment of the game, but I have to ask: what were they thinking?
Finally, there have been no significant advancements in the series since the last game. The graphics engine is as solid as they come. The music is good. The dogfights are amazing. Yes, you have the added ability of giving your wingmen in-game commands, but this really doesn't affect the outcome of the game in any significant way. And what about taking the series online? This game is just begging for online multiplayer action. This could have been one of the best multiplayer games of the year, if executed right. It would certainly be a much needed addition to Sony's online selection, providing competition for the so far unchallenged Crimson Skies on the Xbox.
Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War is a sublime dogfighting experience marred by some pretty weak problems. The story is so bad it is reminiscent of the middle-eastern parody of Derkaderkastan from the film "Team America: Wrold Police". Of course, they were supposed to be funny. Your compatriots are not only useless, they actually interfere with the game itself. And the series really needs to step up and go online. Yet, the core game manages to overcome these flaws. You can, after all, always choose to play in Arcade mode for the most kills. The heart of the game is intact, even if the brain is missing. I highly recommend AC5 to all aerial combat enthusiasts and adrenaline gamers as well. But don't say I didn't warn you.
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